In a harsh assessment of the Brooklyn Syrian Jews published in The New York Times’ Sunday Magazine in October 2007, Zev Chafets painted a malignant picture of a community whose moral values had been warped by a vulgar materialism and a culture of greed.
Rather than seeing itself as others saw it, the community rejected the veracity of Chafets’ report and continued to laud itself as a sterling example of a charitable and supportive Jewish enclave.
With last week’s troubling allegations of criminal misconduct on the part of prominent rabbis in the community, the continued attempt to disregard critical views of the community has been disastrous.
Apart from the ongoing revelations about the nature of the corruption and how deeply embedded it actually was in the community, we would do well to more carefully examine the cultural erosion of the Syrian Jewish tradition; a phenomenon that has become common to many Sephardic communities who have been unable to effect a cultural continuity allowing a perpetuation of their traditions to coming generations.
In the case of the Syrian Jewish community, the story goes back to the tumultuous upheaval of the immigrant years. Lacking a firm institutional base from which to reconstruct its traditional culture, the Syrian Jews were caught between two variant leadership models.
On the one side there was the rabbinical leadership cadre led by Hakham Matloub Abadi which extolled the traditional Sephardic Rabbinic Humanism of the Andalusian tradition. Abadi insisted that provisions be made for the community’s youth to learn the Sephardic heritage in an authentic manner.
On the other side of the equation was the vision of a wealthy businessman named Isaac Shalom who had a very different model of pedagogy and sense of cultural continuity. Shalom’s aim was to create a cadre of quiescent religious leaders who would follow his dictates rather than the ideals of the older tradition. Under the rubric of continuity, Shalom eviscerated the old system, viewed henceforth as antiquated and irrelevant to “modern” concerns, and in its place installed a form of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy that immediately transformed the climate of religiosity in the community.
The critical aspect for the current controversy is the way in which community leadership devolved from the rabbinical cadre to the lay cadre. Henceforth decisions vital to the community would not be decided in the rabbinical court, but in the private offices of the businessmen of the community.
Taking Hakham Matloub Abadi and what he represented out of the equation proved to be a disaster that the community has still not recovered from.
Putting unlimited power into the hands of laypeople meant that the religious institutions of the community would be administered along different standards than had previously been in place.
Matloub Abadi was effectively removed from public service and lived out his life as a businessman rather than a minister and rabbinical leader in the community. The current leadership is heir to the dominance of Isaac Shalom and his hand-picked protégé, Rabbi Jacob Kassin.
In effect, the new arrangement permitted the creation of oligarchic pockets in the community which could function as private fiefdoms dispensing largesse to their supporters.
An “in-group”/”out-group” mentality began to permeate the community. Those inside the leadership held sway over the decision-making process of the community which ceased to be monitored by an independent rabbinate. The lay-leaders and leading rabbis worked hand-in-glove to promote their own vested interests and were not limited by any outside interference. Strict canons of conformity permeated the leadership circles and deviation from their dictates resulted in social rejection.
Intellectuals and independent religious figures were closed out of the new system if they elected to remain critical of the system and its massive financial perquisites. No critical mechanism was made available to monitor the community’s public institutions.
The new model was enabled by the ongoing evisceration of the traditional Sephardic pedagogy. In its place, Shalom and his peers brought to their religious and social institutions the Ashkenazi Orthodox paradigm which had hitherto been marginal to community concerns. With the inclusion of this model the community was left without its native heritage and began to acclimate to the predominant American Jewish model, leaving it bereft of organic self-knowledge.
The new model enabled the promulgation of closed cadres of leaders who were not accountable to the community. Orthodoxy rigidly enforced specific ideational tenets that replaced the expansive culture of Arab-Jewish civilization. Intellectual attainment declined, material values burgeoned and the moral backbone of the community collapsed.
An ongoing debasement of Sephardic culture in both the secular and religious Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish world has caused an upheaval in the Sephardic community; bringing us to the point where the community is showing itself prone to the type of unethical behavior that continues to plague a number of prominent Ashkenazi groups, particularly in the Orthodox world.
The current scandals that have just unfolded reinforce the fact that a breakdown in cultural continuity can often lead to the failure of communal authority and morality. Given the ongoing prejudices against Sephardic culture in Israel and the West, it is not at all certain that the current status quo will have the ability to reform itself. Within the Syrian Jewish community there is a moral collapse that has come from a cultural breakdown of monumental proportions. This has been reinforced by a Jewish world dominated by Ashkenazi interests which is often oblivious to the Sephardic minority.
Because of this cultural system, Sephardim such as the Brooklyn Syrians have come to comport themselves in a way that resembles the way in which business is often done in other sectors of the religious Jewish world.
Regardless of how the current corruption charges are adjudicated, until the older models of Sephardic Jewish leadership and critical self-examination are restored, it is highly unlikely that the current scandals will be addressed with the proper gravitas needed for true moral reform.